NASHVILLE—Saturn and Jupiter will be closer Dec. 21 than they’ve been in 400 years, creating a light so bright that some experts relate it to what happened when a star led the Magi to the baby Jesus.
But the theory holds up to neither science nor Scripture, a Cedarville University physicist and an Answers in Genesis astronomer told Baptist Press. More likely, the biblical star of Bethlehem was a godly miracle, and the historically significant planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter is – well, the planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter.
“A number of people have speculated about the Christmas star – specifically, does it line up with astronomical phenomena,” said Steve Gollmer, a senior physics professor and director of the physics program at Cedarville University, a Baptist-supported school in Cedarville, Ohio.
Gollmer mentioned 17th century astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler, who theorized the Christmas star was a supernova explosion following a “triple conjunction” of planets in 7 B.C.; and more recently the 2009 “Star of Bethlehem” video that theorizes the Magi saw the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in June of 2 BC.
“I’ve looked at that video Star of Bethlehem, and a lot of the claims that the presenter made, I just have some deep concerns about,” Gollmer said. “And in general, when people try to find some significant event, they somewhat use it as a substitute for their confidence in Scripture.
“The Christmas star, it’s kind of interesting that this particular great conjunction is occurring on the first day of winter, of astronomical winter, which is also the shortest day of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere for us,” Gollmer said. “But apart from that, I don’t see a lot of connection with the Christmas star.”
Answers in Genesis astronomer and researcher Danny Faulkner deduced the same.
“As an astronomer, I like this conjunction. It is fairly rare, being this close together in the sky,” Faulkner said. “However, I don’t see any particular significance to it. I think what sparked all the interest is the fact that this is coming four days before Christmas this year.
“And one of the more popular theories that’s been around for a long time,” Faulkner said, “is that the Christmas star was a conjunction of planets.”
Faulkner also referenced Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem video: “These kind of solutions, if you will, for the Christmas star question have been staple … for at least a half century. … But there are problems with that kind of understanding.”
As recorded in Matthew 2:9-10, the wise men were delighted to again see the star they had seen in the East. They followed the star as it went before them “till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (NKJV).
“That sort of description doesn’t really conform to any known astronomical body, particularly a conjunction of planets,” Faulkner said. “I’m of the opinion that God probably created a special light in the sky for the Magi to see at certain times and certain places behave a certain way. And it’s not terribly different than … what God used in the wilderness for the people. There was a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night that led them. And I don’t think we should be looking for naturalistic explanations for that, any more than we should be looking for naturalistic explanations for what that star was that the Magi saw.”
The planetary alignment of Jupiter and Saturn occurs about every 20 years, but the planets will be 0.10 degrees apart this year. They haven’t been that close since 1623 when they were 0.08 degrees apart, and they won’t likely be this close again until 2080, Gollmer explained.
“Rare events are interesting, intriguing. The fact that we can even predict these conjunctions and extrapolate them back 2,000 years is amazing to the regularity of God’s lawful universe. It does testify to that,” Gollmer said. “But to associate it to the Christmas star, I’m hesitant.”
Gollmer also references the Matthew 2:9 account of the star moving to where the child was, and stopping there in the sky.
“Any astronomical phenomena is not going to move over to a certain spot. Especially if the wise men are traveling, your perspective of the stars is going to change as the time goes by. So one hour later, the whole sky moves at an angle of 15 degrees,” Gollmer said. “You’re not going to have, let’s say this conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, resting in one location in the sky and just remaining stationary there for the wise men to follow it.”
Amateur astronomers will want to practice viewing the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn on upcoming days preceding the big event, Gollmer and Faulkner said.
“It’s important that you kind of practice, because the sooner you go out, the sooner you can spot and see where they are,” Faulkner said. “I think a lot of people are going to wait until the day of, and then they don’t know what they’re looking for or where to look. So I think a few test runs will help people who don’t know the sky very well.
“I suggest people figure out when sunset is, and go out no more than a half hour after that. And you need a very good exposure to the southwest, because it is going to be low. If you have any trees or buildings in the way, it could likely block your view. You need to go early. If you wait until the sky’s totally dark, you’ve missed it. They set so quickly.”